Friday, March 13, 2009

Milk Magic

For the last few weeks, my milk supply has been decreasing. I have to pump twice while I'm at work, and I had been getting ~7 ounces combined for these two pumpings. Which, I'll note, isn't enough to cover LL's two feedings during this time, but I also pump in the evenings and on the weekends, so it was kind of close enough... but I'll leave the full Milk Math discussion for a future post. For those non-lactating people out there, I'll just mention the basic fact that an electric breast pump is less efficient than a baby, so pumping less than the baby would eat is totally normal.

Most women are told to expect to get 3-4 ounces per pumping session, which would mean that I should be able to get 6-8 ounces each day at work, so I was okay with my output of 7 ounces. Then I started struggling to get 6 ounces . Then I was regularly getting closer to 5 ounces. It got to the point where, instead of getting 7 ounces while I was at work, I was lucky to be getting 4 ounces. Which sucks. And creates a serious shortage as far as being able to feed LL.

Friends, books, and lactation consultants all told me that the herb fenugreek is the answer to all lactation ills, so off to the store I went. Herbal lactation assistance came in three forms: capsules, tea, and liquid. The capsules are straightforward: take two, several times a day. The tea contains a mixture of various herbs that are all supposed to increase milk supply, and the instructions explained that I was to brew it, covered, for exactly 10 minutes, and drink it 2-3 times each day. The liquid (heretofore referred to as "the potion") came in a mysterious dark bottle, contains the same basic ingredients as the tea, and the instructions said to take 1-2 droppers of potion 3-4 times each day, without drinking any other liquids for 20 minutes before and 20 minutes after taking the potion.

I've never been much of an Eastern medicine, new agey type person, so I bought the capsules (and, surprisingly, the tea. Because I like tea.) but I couldn't bring myself to buy the potion, which just seemed too "out there" for me. It probably wasn't helping that I kept calling it "the potion." After a cup or two of the carefully brewed tea, and several of the capsules, I confided to S that I didn't really expect them to work. Why would tea encourage my breasts to make more milk? It seemed really silly.

But here's the thing: several weeks ago, when I had a cold, I read that the menthol in cough drops can decrease your milk supply, so I strictly avoided cough drops. Why would I wholeheartedly believe that cough drops can decrease milk production, but tea can't possibly increase it?

Which reminds me of when I was trying to get pregnant, and I read that certain foods can decrease the chance of conception, so I religiously avoided those foods. But an actual honest-to-goodness medical study found that eating ice cream can increase the chance of conception, and I dismissed it as hogwash, even though I really love ice cream. So apparently I'm just an inherently pessimistic person. Something could be bad for me? Run like the wind! Something might be good for me? Sure, whatever, that must be superstitious nonsense.

S also tends to think that all of the various herbal whatnot is superstitious nonsense, but he also thinks that me buying it in one form while laughing at it in another form, then doubting the effectiveness while I put myself through the careful timing of tea-brewing several times a day, is just my way of torturing myself. (Have I mentioned the incredible guilt I've been feeling because of the decrease in milk supply? The crushing belief that if I hadn't gone back to work and been forced to rely on pumping, my supply would still be fine, which means that I'm putting my own selfish desire to finish my PhD ahead of the basic nutritional needs of my helpless infant son? No, haven't mentioned that? Hm.)

So at the end of last week, I went out and bought the potion. Fenugreek is used to flavor artificial maple syrup, and I love love love pancakes, so I had been hopeful about the taste. Sadly, the potion tastes disgusting. I feel silly drinking it. But as I take it, I chant to myself, "This will work. This will work. Magic potion. This will work." Then, you know, I spin around three times and throw salt over my shoulder.

And at work today, I pumped 6 ounces. So score one for the magic potion.


  1. SO sorry about the guilt issue. I think it must be pumped in through our veins after delivery or something. I have it awful sometimes.

    I am very glad the fenugreekworked for you. It worked for me. I had to take it about the time my period would start. My supply would take a nose dive.

  2. Fennel is probably what is the fenugreek. I used to drink fennel milk (whole milk boiled with some fennel) every night. Its an old Indian "myth" about fennel being good for milk. I'm not sure there is anything magic about, more likely that fennel probably activates a milk production pathway, that we biomedical scientist haven't figured out yet:)

  3. Actually, fennel is different. The potion has both fennel and fenugreek (and blessed thistle and ... other stuff....). The fennel gave the tea an interesting licorice flavor, but sadly, does nothing to help the flavor of the potion. Not that a mixture of licorice and maple syrup sounds all that great.

    Someone else recently told me to try sweetened condensed milk. What possible biomedical reason could that have? We computer scientists only understand artificial pathways. :)

  4. Whatever the mechanism, I'm glad it worked.

    The pumping/supply issue is also on my list of things that make me not want to return to work. And I already take fenugreek (in capsule form) to keep my supply up (all the while thinking that the tea seemed silly, a tune which will surely change when my supply takes a nosedive).


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